American Panda by Gloria Chao

American Panda by Gloria Chao

American Panda by Gloria Chao (9781481499101)

Mei is a freshman at MIT. Her Taiwanese-American parents have decided that she will become a doctor, though Mei tends to be a bit freaked out by germs. They also want her only to marry a Taiwanese boy selected by them. As Mei chafes under their expectations and excessive attention, she starts to date a Japanese-American boy at MIT. But her brother was kicked out of the family for dating a girl her parents didn’t approve of, so she has to keep him secret. She is also keeping her love for dancing and her dream of owning a dance studio from her parents. And when she starts to see her brother again, she also can’t tell them that. As Mei’s lies and secrets grow larger, it becomes inevitable that they will topple over and the truth will come out. But what does that mean for her relationship with her parents and extended family, going to MIT and her own dreams?

Chao has created a book that she needed as a teenager, one that reflects the deep-seated expectations of a family. At times, the reactions and actions of the family are horrifying, including the put downs of Mei, the disowning of children, and the expectation that the parents’ opinions are all that matter in every scenario. And still, readers will see the love shine through since Chao allows spaces to form that give Mei and her family hope for reconciliation in the future.

The book is masterfully written allowing readers to see culture as both a foundation but also as a constricting world at times. She imbues the entire novel with humor, since Mei is funny and smart, seeing the world through her own unique lens. The messages from Mei’s mother pop up between chapters, offering their own moments of laughter. The steady growth of connection between Mei and her mother is one of the most vital parts of the book, as Mei’s discovery of her own voice allows her mother to step forward too.

A book that belongs in all public libraries, this novel will speak universally to all teenagers looking to make their own paths. Appropriate for ages 13-16.

(Reviewed from copy provided by Simon Pulse.)

 

3 New Picture Books Full of Compassion

Be Kind by Pat Zietlow Miller

Be Kind by Pat Zietlow Miller, illustrated by Jen Hill (9781626723214)

When Tanisha spilled grape juice on her dress, the others in class laughed at her until she ran out of the room. But one child doesn’t laugh and tries to make her feel better by saying that they love the color purple too. That child narrates the book and wonders what the kind thing or better thing to do would have been. Maybe kindness is giving? Or could it be helping? Is it paying attention? Using people’s names? It can be hard to be kind, to stand up to others, to be the lone voice. And sometimes, kindness is sitting near someone quietly and then showing without words that you understand. Miller explore kindness in a way that children will understand and offers them questions rather than simple solutions so they can explore the idea themselves. The art in the picture book is nicely done, incorporating children of different races in the classroom. The ambiguous gender of the main character is also welcome. This is a book that invites conversation about kindness and compassion. Appropriate for ages 5-7. (Reviewed from copy provided by Roaring Brook Press.)

Chinese Emperor_s New Clothes by Ying Chang Compestine

Chinese Emperor’s New Clothes by Ying Chang Compestine, illustrated by David Roberts (9781419725425)

This picture book is a twist on the traditional tale, this time with the emperor being part of the trick rather than solely the tailors. When young emperor Ming Da discovers that his advisors are stealing from him, he comes up with a clever way to expose their misdeeds. Enlisting the help of his tailors, Ming Da dresses in burlap sacks, telling his advisors that they only look like sacks to those who are dishonest, otherwise they look like the finest silks. The three advisors soon have their own sacks to wear in the entourage, since they can’t admit their dishonesty. With a focus on helping the poor and being honest, this picture book is an engaging twist on the original. The illustrations pay homage to the Chinese setting by incorporating more formal framing at times. Look for small creatures watching the action along with the reader and the looks of delight as the tailors trap the advisors in their lies. A great book to share aloud, with a young hero who puts others before himself. (Reviewed from library copy.)

The Rabbit and the Shadow by Melanie Rutten

 The Rabbit and the Shadow by Melanie Rutten (9780802854858)

This French import is a strange and haunting picture book. When Stag finds Rabbit left on his doorstep, he takes Rabbit in and raises him. They laugh together and feel each other’s pain. They race home and Stag always lets Rabbit win. Rabbit worries that Stag won’t always be there and Stag knows that Rabbit with grow up and eventually leave. Then one day, that happens. Rabbit is alone in the woods and meets two others, a Cat who loves soccer and a Warrior who is very angry. The three of them adventure together and form a family of sorts, eventually they all become more honest about who they are. Still, there is a shadow lingering nearby, one that has been in Rabbit’s story since the beginning. Can that Shadow help bring Stag and Rabbit together again?

Told with such heart and beauty, this picture book is a very different read. It is about family and adoption, but also reaches beyond that to the struggle of growing up and being independent, yet the homesickness and longing for people you love. It’s a deep picture book, that reaches into dark corners and reveals that shadows can actually protect and guard. It’s a book that shows that the universe can revolve around love and still allow exploration, new friends and wonder. The illustrations are playful at times, dark with worry at others, and exploding with joy too. Emotions are not only depicted by the characters but embraced by the entire color palette too.

One of those wonderful picture book imports that will blow your mind. Appropriate for ages 5-7. (Reviewed from copy provided by Eerdmans Books for Young Readers.)

3 Picture Books Honoring Family

The Best Tailor in Pinbaue by Eymard Toledo

The Best Tailor in Pinbaue by Eymard Toledo (9781609808044)

Edinho’s uncle is the best tailor in the small town of Pinbaue in Brazil. He used to make bright-colored and beautiful clothes and costumes for the villagers, but now he just makes uniforms for the factory where almost everyone in town works. Edinho’s father doesn’t work for the factory either, he still keeps fishing though the pollution from the factory has impacted the quality and quantity of the fish. Then the factory decides to import their uniforms and suddenly Uncle Flores doesn’t have any work to do. When Edinho discovers bright fabric in storage, he has an idea that just might help the entire village. The text of this picture book is sprinkled with Portuguese words. The writing is clear and very readable, offering a fictional village that speaks to the plight of real small villages across Brazil and other countries.The illustrations are fascinating collages worth poring over. Fine details, textured papers and lots of patterns create a rich world. A compelling look at the impact of large factories on villages and how children can make a difference. Appropriate for ages 5-8. (Reviewed from library copy.)

Grandma_s Purse by Vanessa Brantley- Newton

Grandma’s Purse by Vanessa Brantley- Newton (9781524714314)

An African-American little girl’s grandma Mimi is coming to visit and she lets the little girl look at what she carries in her purse! There is a mirror for putting on lipstick, perfume, earrings, hairpins, candy, and much more. Larger things include her phone, a scarf, glasses, and a coin purse filled with coins and memories. The two of them talk about each thing and then the little girl gets to try some of it out, including the lipstick, hairpins, scarf and glasses. Then they look at pictures from the grandmother’s purse that show Grandma Mimi as a little girl. There is one last thing way at the bottom of the purse, and it’s just for Mimi’s granddaughter this time! Told with an eye to explaining what the grandmother is carrying and why, this exploration of a purse is pure joy. The connection between the girl and grandmother is tangible on the page and celebrated in each illustration. I particularly love the messy lipstick on the little girl and her joy at each discovery. A winning look at a special relationship. Appropriate for ages 3-5. (Reviewed from copy received from Alfred A. Knopf.)

Grandma_s Tiny House A Counting Story by JaNay Brown-Wood

Grandma’s Tiny House: A Counting Story by JaNay Brown-Wood, illustrated by Priscilla Burris

Grandma is getting ready for a party. With two turkeys already baked, the neighbors start to show up. Three of them bring four dishes to pass. Five family members come with six dozen biscuits and jam. The counting continues through the story with lemonade, cheesecakes, sweet-potato pies, and honeydew melons being brought by more and more people. When the party starts, the house is too full for people to move. One little granddaughter has the solution and the party moves outside to the big backyard. While this is clearly a counting book, the story of a warm and large family is really at its heart. The illustrations by Burris are welcoming and warm. Readers will want their own outside party filled with great food, friends and family. Expect lots of watering mouths as you share this book. Appropriate for ages 2-4. (Reviewed from library copy.)

 

 

The Truth as Told by Mason Buttle by Leslie Connor

The Truth as Told by Mason Buttle by Leslie Connor

The Truth as Told by Mason Buttle by Leslie Connor (9780062491497)

Released January 23, 2018.

Mason is the biggest kid in his grade and it doesn’t help that he’s also the sweatiest. To make matters worse, he has dyslexia and trouble with reading and writing. His family has gone through a series of tragedies with his mother dying and then his best friend falling out of a tree house in Mason’s family orchard. Since his death, Mason has been trying to tell the police his side of the story, but he can’t write it down and the officer interrupts him and makes it all confusing. Now Mason has a new best friend, one he made when running from the neighborhood bullies who throw balls and apples at them as they get off the bus. The two create a club house for themselves in an abandoned root cellar behind Mason’s house. But trouble seems to find Mason, and soon there is a a new tragedy to overcome.

Connor writes books that soar and are completely heartfelt, this book is another of those. Connor looks at what grief does to a family, the time that it takes to recover and what happens when a series of incidents occur to the same family and they can’t return to normal. Still, there is hope in every day things. There is hope in the clean kitchen, NPR playing, banana milkshakes. There is hope in good dogs, new friends and people surprising you. Connor’s book shines with that hope, despite the clutter of their life, the dirt on the carpet, the laundry on the floor.

Mason too shines with hope and honesty. He is an unlikely hero with his size and his sweat. And yet, readers will immediately see beyond that. They will see Mason as a friend and a source of protection and care. Readers will also figure things out well before Mason does, including the fact that he is suspected of contributing to his best friend’s death.

Filled with heart and hope, this is a wonderful read. Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from e-galley received from Edelweiss and Harper Collins.

Explore Nature with These 3 Picture Books

How to Be an Elephant by Katherine Roy

How to Be an Elephant: Growing Up in the African Wild by Katherine Roy (9781626721784)

This picture book celebrates elephants in a way that invites readers deeply into the life of a newborn elephant calf and all that that baby has to learn. The book opens with the birth and then the family of female elephants that will raise the infant together. The elephant’s body is explored from the way it walks and balances to the way its ears help handle the heat to the dexterity of the trunk. Sounds and food are also explored along with the habitat the elephants live in. Throughout, the book offers scientific information in a conversational way. The book is almost like a readable version of nature documentaries where facts celebrate and delight. The art of the picture book is rich and warm showing the elephants in their habitat. It also shows scientific information about structure and sound that is presented graphically and with just enough detail for young readers. An exceptional science and nature nonfiction picture book, this is one stellar pick for library collections. Appropriate for ages 6-9. (Review copy provided by Roaring Book Press.)

On a Magical Do-Nothing Day by Beatrice Alemagna

On a Magical Do-Nothing Day by Beatrice Alemagna (9780062657602)

A child and their mother head back to a small cabin on a rainy day. The child just wants to play their video game, but their mother insists on them heading outside. It is bleak and raining out but as they head into the woods, the rocks in the pond beckon them forward. Leaping from rock to rock, the video game falls into the water and is lost. The child is devastated by the loss but is soon distracted by some of the wildlife around from glowing snails walking in rows to mushrooms. The beauty of the rich earth below and the sun coming through the clouds above. There is rolling down hills, quiet time in the woods, and getting soaked through. Once back home, the day is transformed entirely into something new.

This picture book is an interesting look at the tug between technology and spending time outside. I enjoyed the child realizing that the world is fascinating and a place to explore that is far better than the small world of the game that they have already played. The warm little cabin and the isolation also add to the appeal of the book and the pleasure of a newfound way to spend time outdoors. Throughout the book there is a sense of quiet and wonder. That is emphasized by the images that fill the pages with trees, water, dirt and plants. It is rather like being immersed in a rainy day yourself. A great book to read and then set off on outdoor adventures together on a rainy day. Appropriate for ages 4-6. (Reviewed from library copy.)

The Pond by Nicola Davies

The Pond by Nicola Davies, illustrated by Cathy Fisher (9781912050703)

Told in the voice of a boy who has lost his father, this book shows the connection of people to nature and through that connection to one another. The boy’s father had always wanted a pond in the backyard, but when he died all he left behind was a muddy hole. Ducks tried to land in the mucky hole and the boy tried to fill it with water, but it created an even larger mess. Then one day, his mother lined the hole and surrounded it with rocks. Soon there was an ecosystem forming with tadpoles, insects, algae and newts. When the water lily finally bloomed, it was time for the family to move to a new house, but the memory of the pond would stay with them forever and they would create a new one in their new place. Written with deep emotion both about grief in a family and also about connection to nature, this picture book shows rebirth in a very organic way. The illustrations are rich and lovely, celebrating the transformation from a hole to a pond with life. A touching and hope-filled book. Appropriate for ages 5-7. (Reviewed from library copy.)

Solo by Kwame Alexander

Solo by Kwame Alexander

Solo by Kwame Alexander (9780310761839, Amazon)

Blade has grown up with all sorts of privileges as the son of a rock star, but the big house and huge parties come at a cost. His father is always humiliating him, like when he crashes (literally) Blade’s graduation ceremony where Blade is meant to give a speech. His father tries to clean up his act regularly, but it never seems to stick and he returns to drugs and alcohol. Blade also misses his mother terribly after her death. When Blade finally confronts his father about his behavior, a family secret is revealed that changes Blade’s perspective permanently. He sets off to discover his own history, a journey that takes him to Ghana, a place entirely different than the one he has been living in.

Newbery-Medal winner Alexander has crafted another amazing verse novel here. He moves firmly into teen territory here, with a 17-year-old protagonist who is truly on a journey to discover himself. Alexander starts the novel with the excess of a rock legend’s life and then beautifully changes the novel mid-course to Ghana and people who live as a strong community with few luxuries. The two settings could not be more different nor could what Blade feels while he is in each. Ghana is vividly depicted as is Blade’s reaction to it, rich with people and place.

Alexander’s poetry writing is superb in both settings. Yet it truly comes alive in Ghana, particularly with Joy, Blade’s guide and inspiration while there. Just as Blade cannot look away from Joy, neither can the novel nor the reader since she is so captivating. Throughout the book, there are questions asked that are deep, about wealth and poverty, about privilege and race, about addiction and recovery, about parenting and failure. This is a rich book filled with lots to discover and discuss.

A great read that will be enjoyed by even those teens who may not think they’d like a verse novel. Appropriate for ages 15-18.

Reviewed from ARC received from HarperCollins.

The Treasure Box by Margaret Wild

The Treasure Box by Margaret Wild

The Treasure Box by Margaret Wild, illustrated by Freya Blackwood (9780763690847, Amazon)

Nominated for the CBCA Picture Book of the Year, this picture book is exceptional. In a time of war, the library is burned and only one book survives. Peter’s father has that book and creates an iron box to keep it safe. When Peter and his father flee their town, they carry the book with them. Peter’s father dies on the journey and he continues to carry the book with him, even leaving behind his suitcase to manage it. Finally, Peter must leave the box behind, but he hides it safely first. Years later, Peter is able to return to the box and rescue the book, restoring it to his hometown and its library.

Wild’s lovely and simple text allows the drama of the story elements to speak for themselves, never injecting more horror into it. That approach allows the reader to feel deeply the loss and pain of losing one’s homeland. Even the death of Peter’s father is subtle and gentle, allowing the grief to permeate more fully. It makes the focus on the importance of the book all the more tangible and vital.

It is Blackwood’s illustrations that truly make this book amazing. She has created layered illustrations that have shadows and depth to them. Throughout the images, there are pages of books shown. They fall as scraps of paper with words of hope on them, dash across the page as rain, and form the smoke of the burning town. They create the landscape and the foundation beautifully.  Here is an image from the book and Blackwood’s blog:

Treasure Box Image

A war-torn book that speaks to the power of history and knowledge along with resistance and resilience. Appropriate for ages 4-6.

Reviewed from library copy.

 

Beyond the Bright Sea by Lauren Wolk

Beyond the Bright Sea by Lauren Wolk

Beyond the Bright Sea by Lauren Wolk (9781101994856, Amazon)

The author of Wolf Hollow returns with her second novel for young people.  This is a novel of the Elizabeth Islands in Massachusetts where Crow has lived all of her life. She lives on a solitary island with Osh, the man who found her afloat in a little boat when she was a newborn baby.  The others on the islands won’t associate with Crow, since they all assume that she came from a nearby island that was a leper hospital. Miss Maggie is the exception, she cares fiercely for Crow and makes sure that she learns what she needs to despite not being able to attend school. As Crow starts to piece together her own history, she exposes those she loves to new dangers that are far worse than the storms of nature they weather together.

Wolk once again has created a novel that brings a place to life. Here she has chosen the Elizabeth Islands and the islands themselves feature prominently in the story both in terms of their isolation but also in their beauty. The islands serve as shelter, home, a source of fuel and food, and a community as well. The island with the hospital for lepers insures that Crow is even more isolated than the rest of the community due to the questions of her past. It’s a brilliant setting, one of the best that I have ever read where each page is a reflection of the sea and the islands.

Crow is a dazzlingly great heroine. She is strong and independent, determined to figure things out even as those around her give up. She pieces together clues from the mystery of her past, a mystery that permeates the entire novel even after it is solved. Crow is anxious to learn of her history and throughout the novel explores questions of identity and family of love and betrayal. It’s a novel that swirls and eddies, displaying beauty and dangers in turn.

This is a beautifully written and deep novel for middle grade readers who will long to visit Crow’s island themselves. Appropriate for ages 9-12.

Reviewed from ARC received from Dutton Books for Young Readers.

 

At the Edge of the Universe by Shaun David Hutchinson

At the Edge of the Universe by Shaun David Hutchinson

At the Edge of the Universe by Shaun David Hutchinson (9781481449663, Amazon)

Ozzie is the only one who remembers his boyfriend Tommy. He’s known Tommy since they were young children and they started dating in middle school. Now though, no one remembers that Tommy existed, including Ozzie’s family, his friends, and Tommy’s parents. Ozzie has figured out that the universe is shrinking around him, erasing people like Tommy from existence and rearranging history as if they were never there. Meanwhile, Ozzie’s world continues to change. His best friend Lua is becoming a rock star, his brother is headed to basic training, and his parents’ marriage is breaking up. One bright spot in Ozzie’s life is Cal, a confusing boy he is paired with for a physics project but the feelings developing between them complicate his ongoing search for Tommy.

This book sweeps you up, whisks you into Ozzie’s world and you believe, oh my, do you believe. Even though it’s impossible, questionable, and strange, you are along for the ride and the wonder of it all. This is because the emotions are so strong and real, the terror of life changing and the lack of control, the love between people that survives even though one is gone, the joy of new connections and friends. It’s all there, exactly what young readers are experiencing themselves but shown in a way that no one has seen before.

While Ozzie may believe the universe is shrinking, readers will question that right up to the end. What they won’t question is the world that Hutchinson has created here, filled with vibrant characters that you want to love and befriend. The LGBT themes are strongly written and beautifully presented. While the main character is gay, his friends are just as diverse. Lua is gender variant, striking and dramatic, changing pronouns with outfits. Other characters are asexual, presented in just the same frank and unquestioning way. LGBT characters in the book talk about sex, have sex, explore sex. It’s all brilliantly normal in a book that is anything but.

This is a book you must read to completely understand it. I hope you find it just as compelling and wondrous as I did. Enjoy! Appropriate for ages 14-18.